Following the Guadalhorce

A friendly little Sardinian Warbler hopping around outside my window was the first bird I saw on my last full day in Spain. I’d heard and seen countless others over the course of the vacation, but I savored the quiet moment watching it forage. I knew that once I returned to my home an ocean away, I wouldn’t be able to see this species, or any other in its family, for quite some time. The approaching end of a foreign vacation can feel a little bittersweet, but that’s no excuse not to continue squeezing as much fun and excitement as possible from the final hours. Miriam and I set out for El Chorro a bit after 8 AM, but the GPS struggled to get us where we needed to go. We arrived at the famous Caminito del Rey around mid-morning, and we found that the weekend crowd for this popular tourist trap was larger and unrulier than we had expected. The long waiting lines and the prospect of shuffling along the trail with a herd of humanity convinced us to seek adventure elsewhere.

Fortunately, the immediate vicinity of the trailhead had plenty to offer, so we checked out the scenic riverside cliffs of Desfiladero de Los Gaitanes Natural Area. We had to traverse a long, dark tunnel from the road to reach the trails, and we miraculously had the walkway to ourselves on our first pass. I’ve experienced total darkness underground before, but the tiny pinpoints of light at either end of the passage made for a surreal sensation with no depth perception to accurately gauge the distance. The scenic gorges and surrounding forest on the other side were bustling with bird life, including siskins, serins, and a handful of vocal Red Crossbills. A congregation of Eurasian Griffons riding a thermal caught my attention, and as I searched through the seemingly uniform flock for oddities I noticed a smaller bird near the top of the column. The raptor, though little more than half the size of the vultures, was quite large and obviously longer-tailed. When it banked and showed its underside, I saw a streaky white breast contrasting with its dark wings. Bonelli’s Eagle, one of the characteristic species of the Spanish mountains and I species I’d been looking for all week! Not a bad prize considering that we got shut out of the main attraction itself.

Next door neighbor There's a light at the end of the tunnel

We eventually departed the valleys and headed for the coast, following the lazy track of the Guadalhorce River. Our final birding site for the trip is considered one of the ultimate hotspots in all of Andalusia for avian diversity. Desembocadura del Guadalhorce, the river mouth estuary, is situated between the Málaga airport and the city itself. Its location along the shore of the Mediterranean and its surprisingly rich habitat makes it a magnet for migrants and rarities alike. We spotted a Booted Eagle circling over the wetlands when we set out on the trail: it was a pretty crazy experience to triple the number of eagle species on my life list in just one week of birding! There were several observation blinds looking out over the lagoons, offering an opportunity to survey the local birds at close range without disturbing them. A small flotilla of White-headed Ducks napping under some overhanging brush were a welcome sight, since this endangered cousin of the Ruddy Duck had been giving us the runaround at the other locales we visited. I performed a quick seawatch while Miriam snapped some photographs in the wetlands, picking up Great Crested Grebe, Northern Gannet, Sandwich Tern, and a flyby Great Skua within 5 minutes. I was pretty impressed with the wildlife we observed during our brief time at the river mouth, but all good things must come to an end. This was a pretty fantastic place to end our Spanish birding expedition.

That's a positive sign  And mäni interesting furry animals

After lunch, the rest of the day was spent making final preparations for the flight. Miriam and I took some time to explore the streets of Málaga after dark, unwinding and decompressing from the craziness of our whirlwind roadtrip. I ended up tallying 95 lifers out of the 125 species observed during the week, and we covered roughly 727 miles on the road before returning our temporary car to the rental outfitter. I expect that this vacation will go down in my personal record books as one of my all time best. There may have been a few target misses here and there, and I would have loved more time to fully soak up all that Spain has to offer, but we both had a blast on our first major trip together. Getting to see the natural beauty of a whole new continent for the first time was an incredible experience. I can’t wait to see where our travels take us next.

Next stop, New York!

Year List Update, February 24 – 236 Species (+ Bonelli’s Eagle, Red Crossbill, Booted Eagle, White-headed Duck)

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Serranía and Salt

I stepped out on to the balcony in Ronda and watched color return to the valley below as squawking flocks of Red-billed Choughs wheeled overhead. It was a dramatic, marvelous scene to wake up to, but we weren’t lingering to take in the view. Shortly after sunrise, we started out through the labyrinthine, narrow streets to collect our car from the parking lot. A few Eurasian Siskins could be heard chittering in the trees nearby before we hit the road. Our plotted course for the day was based on a combination of productive-looking eBird hotspots and nearby locations mentioned in Andalucía Bird Society blog posts. The amount of detailed information readily available on the internet really helped to make this trip as successful as it was!

What a way to wake up!

A pair of Long-tailed Tits briefly popped into view in a bush along the road as we came around a descending switchback. Miriam unfortunately missed getting a look at the adorable little fluffballs, and when we arrived at Cueva del Gato she had similar bad luck with a here-then-gone Coal Tit. Not to be deterred, she was the first to spot a Gray Wagtail foraging at the edge of the stream, and she also got to enjoy Eurasian Wren, Blackcaps, and her ever-favored cormorants. We next headed towards the Llanos de Libar area of Sierra Grazalema National Park, working our way along a rough, unpaved road through some prime alpine habitat. The rocky conditions eventually got bad enough that we decided not to push our luck any further. We had to stop short of the oak grove that apparently lay some distance ahead, but I caught sight of Black Wheatear, Rock Petronia, and Rock Bunting before we made it back to the concrete.

A swirling storm of Crag-Martins and some distant Great Crested Grebes floating on a reservoir were the most interesting discoveries in the vicinity of Zahara de la Sierra, a picturesque little town perched on the mountainside. They had a castle and everything! The area seemed to be a corvid hotspot, featuring a pair of ravens, a lone Jackdaw, and a small gathering of choughs. We noticed that large groups of Eurasian Griffons were starting to take to the skies above the rocky crags, and I’d heard from local experts that eagles can often be observed soaring above these circling masses of vultures. We started driving higher into the mountains, pausing at Garganta Verde to check for activity. It was a super birdy site, but most of the tiny songbirds that sounded interesting stayed well-hidden in the brush.

Blossoms in bloom The Green Throat

Eventually we arrived at a popular mirador, or lookout, called Puerto de las Palomas. Previous reports had spoken of Ring Ouzels, Blue Rock Thrushes, and Alpine Accentors that frequented the rocky slopes nearby. We found no sign of the smaller species, but the griffon show was pretty spectacular. A constant stream of the giant raptors flew past us at close range as they departed their roosting cliffs to forage for carrion. Some of them provided incredible views while moving along the ridgeline between thermals. We also enjoyed the company of a pair of amorous Peregrines, watching as they prospected potential nest sites and courted one another. When we finally returned to the car and prepared to leave, a Golden Eagle appeared high above the parking lot. It had been too long since I’d seen one of these majestic predators, and it was a much-anticipated lifer for Miriam.

Gyps through a portal, that's a Griffon Door! Vulture culture

The back half of the day saw us driving east towards Fuente de Piedra, where we hoped to score some waterbirds and open country species in the late afternoon. The saline lagoon is an important resource for a wide variety of species, but the region is most famous for its huge breeding population of Greater Flamingos. The bulk of the birds were little more than a shimmering, pink smudge on the far shore, but a few dozen were stomping around in a pool adjacent to the entrance road. The evening light made the graceful birds positively glow, and it was great to see them well after all of the distant encounters on the trip.

Small groups of Jackdaws bounced back and forth between the visitor center’s roof and a nearby field, noisily calling to each other the whole time. A buffet of shorebirds probed the muddy edges of the water features, including Golden-plovers, Lapwings, snipes, and stilts. A pair each of Little Stint and Little Ringed Plover were nice, unexpected additions to my life list. Several types of waterfowl were also present, including a male and female Shelduck. Miriam had been hoping to reunite with the species, and seeing the birds in adult plumage was almost like seeing a new species all over again.

We managed to locate a solitary Pied Avocet further out the trail, much to my adventure buddy’s delight. The species had been on her wish list since she excitedly pointed out the “Fancy Avocet” during our first review of possible targets back in October. I’m of the opinion that all the members of the family Recurvirostridae are pretty snazzy birds, but I have to admit that this one was especially good-looking.

A close encounter with a cute and fearless baby rabbit and a variety of fluttering songbirds were the highlights of our long walk back along the lakeshore to the car park. We spent some time at sunset watching for the alleged local Little Owls, a common bird that we both strongly desired and somehow missed the entire vacation. A Common Sandpiper feeding at the edge of the flamingo puddle offered some compensation, and the flamingos themselves really looked impressive in the rapidly fading daylight. As nightfall approached, we hopped back in our vehicle and started off into the hills once again.

Evening stroll  Da bun!

I was thankful that we left Fuente de Piedra when we did, because the winding road to Valle de Abdalajís was challenging enough even when I could see. The bed and breakfast we’d booked didn’t have any food available because we hadn’t warned them in advance of our arrival, but they were able to point us to an open restaurant just a short walk down the road. So much of our trip was spent on the move, that it was often difficult to find time to eat! Whenever we did, though, the meals were usually quite impressive. It’s hard to complain when you’re having too much fun to remember food, honestly!

Year List Update, February 23 – 232 Species (+ Eurasian Siskin, Long-tailed Tit, Coal Tit, Eurasian Wren, Gray Wagtail, Black Wheatear, Rock Petronia, Rock Bunting, Eurasian Crag-Martin, Great Crested Grebe, Golden Eagle, Little Stint, Common Shelduck, Little Ringed Plover, Pied Avocet, Common Sandpiper

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Damn, Strait!

Being able to see a different continent from the one you’re standing on is a rare treat. On the beach outside our temporary home in Tarifa, the northern coast of Africa was visible about 9 miles away. This stretch of water is the narrowest point of the Strait of Gibraltar, which makes it a legendary location for watching migration. Seabirds and marine mammals moving between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic can be observed from shore with ease, and many species of soaring travelers choose to take this shortcut rather than wasting valuable energy on long over-water crossings. I’d reached out to the naturalists at Centro Internacional de la Migración de las Aves, otherwise known as CIMA, to ask about prime vantage points for getting in on the action. They informed me that seawatching could be rewarding from basically any coastal location in the region, and they also provided detailed information on where to scan for northbound raptors. I awoke to beautiful conditions on Thursday morning, and I immediately set out to try my luck in the field.

Light winds and unlimited visibility made for a fantastic morning surveying the surface of the sea. Miriam slept in a bit longer while I checked out the local bird life. Kentish Plovers were immediately apparent scuttling among the Sanderlings, and it was impossible to ignore the throngs of Yellow-legged Gulls. A procession of Northern Gannets streamed by to the west, heading towards the open ocean, and I picked out a few flocks of Cory’s Shearwaters migrating in the opposite direction. A circling Great Skua was a welcome surprise, and there were small numbers of Sandwich Terns on the move as well. I also glimpsed two distant birds rising and falling at the horizon line as they worked their way westward. They appeared to be small tubenoses, but try as I might I could not discern enough detail to confirm their identities with certainty. Even though the expected species is the would-be-lifer Balearic Shearwater, I just don’t feel totally comfortable checking them off with the “views” that I got. I can still hope that the Mediterranean “Scopoli’s” race of Cory’s will get officially elevated one day, though.

Proper seawatch attire   Hey, Africa!

After Miriam joined me on the beach, we packed our things and headed out of town to the cliffs overlooking the Strait. When we arrived at our chosen watchpoint, we were treated to blindingly gorgeous views of the mid-morning sunlight shining on the sea ahead of Morocco. A few Thekla’s Larks and Goldfinches kept us company while we waited for the large migrants to show up. The day’s movements got off to a somewhat slow start, but by noon we had seen a handful of Short-toed Snake-Eagles making the crossing between the continents. Knowing that it was a bit early in the season to expect jaw-dropping diversity and high counts, we elected to move on to our next stop, Gibraltar.

The rental car company, unsurprisingly and understandably, had forbidden us from bringing our vehicle across the international border at La Linea. Word on the street said crossing over on foot was much quicker and easier anyway, so we found a parking spot and passed through customs hassle-free. We decided to play tourist for a little while and joined a guided bus trip to the Upper Rock, hoping to get a taste of everything Gibraltar has to offer without spending our whole afternoon hoofing it from place to place. We were not disappointed. Our chauffeur was knowledgeable and entertaining, and the views we encountered were pretty impressive.

Clear the runway!    Port side

I kept an eye out for wildlife as we drove along the narrow roads that wind their way up the Rock. Our guide told Miriam that the Barbary Partridge we were looking for are often quite difficult to find, favoring the most natural areas of their only home in mainland Europe. On the other hand, we had no trouble at all locating the best known residents of the territory, the Barbary Macaques. These tailless monkeys live a charmed life in the nature sanctuary above Gibraltar, and they’ve grown quite accustomed to human presence. Although origins of the population are unknown, they’ve inhabited the Rock as long as history remembers. Today the macaques probably qualify as semi-wild, unrestrained and free but heavily managed. Food is provided to incentivize staying out of the city proper, and population control methods have also been utilized. Seeing the famous “apes” in person after hearing so much about them was a fun experience.

Tour staff repeatedly delivered the common sense warning not to feed or touch the primates, but evidently no one informed them not to touch us. Several individuals hopped aboard to inspect our hair for parasites and our pockets for snacks. It was a pretty cool experience, though I could’ve done without the cheeky gnawing on my scalp.

Hitchhiker Sometimes...I do think some evil...
The latest fashion Life is good

Our bus route led us to a few more traditional tourist stops, including the Great Siege Tunnels and the subterranean concert venue at St. Michael’s Cave. All in all, it was a nice break from the high intensity birding that still provided us with a little nature-based fun in addition to the cultural and architectural stuff.

Cool blues This place is pretty underground
Do you have a flag? The Top of the Rock

When we finally returned to Spain and our rental, we started the drive up into the mountains. Our sleeping arrangements were situated on the scenic cliffs of Ronda, where we enjoyed a delicious traditional meal before settling down for the night. Despite brief breather in Gibraltar, we were already back to plotting an early morning itinerary based on eBird hotspots with peak avian activity. The ride never ends!

Year List Update, February 22 – 216 Species (+ Kentish Plover, Northern Gannet, Cory’s Shearwater, Sandwich Tern, Great Skua, Short-toed Snake-Eagle)

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Do You Wanna See Doñana?

We departed from Seville under cover of darkness, driving towards the Atlantic coast. There was an hour of drive time to go before our predawn appointment with the Discovering Doñana tour company, an outfitter that offers access to Spain’s most famous national park. The public is not permitted to enter the majority of the vast wetland and forest habitats, widely regarded as one of the most important migration stopover sites in all of Europe. The reserve is also home to several endangered and endemic species, including the Iberian Lynx and the Spanish Imperial Eagle. A handful of options exist for exploring the interior of Doñana, but this particular operation came highly recommended by my good buddy Ben. Miriam and I reached the established meeting point in El Rocío just before sunrise, and the desk staff introduced us to our guide, Maria. As we loaded our gear into the 4×4, Maria give us a bit of background on her experience as a wildlife biologist, explaining that she specialized in studying Eagle-Owls and other raptors. We set off on the dusty trail to the park gates, hoping to locate some interesting wildlife in the early hours of the day.

We first passed La Rocina lagoon, noting foraging flocks of Greater Flamingos and spying the silhouettes of Iberian Magpies streaking overhead. We then journeyed through the Coto del Rey, the former royal hunting woodlands, where we came across a set of muddy puddles. Maria pulled over and hopped out to check the ground for tracks. We were stunned by the number and diversity of species that had left their soggy footprints alongside the road. Tiny paw impressions on either side of the water were evidence of a Common Genet that bounded through the area, and the larger ones with deep claw marks were a match for European Badger. A few different Wild Boar had apparently come to the watering hole, and avian trace included Eurasian Magpie and owl prints that Maria identified as Barn Owl based on size. We even saw a male Sparrowhawk standing at the edge of one pool, though he didn’t leave any visible signs of his visit once he flew off. Finding Iberian Lynx tracks was a real treat, but that was regrettably the closest we came to encountering the world’s rarest wildcat. Striking out with this wily predator was not terribly surprising, and I probably used up my lynx luck with the individual I met in Denali, Alaska a decade ago. Undaunted by the absence of the elusive feline, we continued onwards into the heart of Doñana.

We soon reached the boundary between forest and marsh, where we traded cork oak and umbrella pine for bulrushes and scattered shrubs. With the wide variety of fauna present in the region, it is easy to understand Doñana’s history as a private hunting zone. We observed both Red and Fallow Deer herds during our tour, and Red-legged Partridges were rarely far away throughout the morning. Songbirds were also abundant and vocal, with Blackcaps, Robins, Chaffinches, and Serins all adding their songs to the chorus. I also briefly glimpsed a Firecrest flitting among the branches of a roadside tree.

As we scanned with our scopes from the edge of a clearing, Maria pointed out a pale raptor perched on the opposite side. We got our optics on it and confirmed its identity as a young Spanish Imperial Eagle. We felt fortunate to cross paths the signature bird of Doñana, a true Spain specialty! This rare Iberian endemic wound up being the 700th bird species on my life list, a true honor. A second individual arrived on the scene a short time later, and we got to watch the two interact with one another from our distant vantage point. Although adults are quite similar in appearance to the familiar Golden Eagle, immature Imperials are lighter in coloration. Their large size and powerful build still make them stand out from smaller birds of prey. The same field also produced Red Kite and Black-shouldered Kite, and a pair of Great Spotted Cuckoos were putting on a show as they flew noisily from bush to bush. They had likely only just returned from Africa for the breeding season, but they seemed to be already on the lookout for a magpie nest where they could deposit their offspring. Before we returned to our vehicle, Maria directed our attention to the pit trap of a larval antlion in the sand at our feet. Not all predators are as conspicuous and dramatic as an eagle, but these voracious insects are every bit as fierce, if not more so!

Most of the wetland habitat we drove through was quite dry. Even so, the vistas were striking and there was plenty of action to be found. Several bushes dotting the extensive plains served as perches for the Southern Gray Shrike, which we observed aggressively chasing Hoopoes. I also added a duo of Eurasian Griffons, a small flock of European Golden-Plovers, and a Song Thrush that vanished just as quickly as it had appeared. I got a better look at some Calandra Larks, and Maria pointed out a cooperative Thekla’s Lark that allowed close study to focus on the traits which distinguish this lookalike species from its more common Crested cousins. The periscopic necks of Common Cranes peered out of the scrub as they searched for prey, though a few family groups appeared anxious to get a headstart their northbound migration. We eventually arrived at some deeper ponds that still retained their water, and these were predictably bustling with activity compared to the parched surroundings.

Eurasian Spoonbills swept their namesake beaks in search of prey alongside the flamingos and storks, and we also picked up Black-winged Stilt, Common Snipe, and Black-tailed Godwit. Western Swamphens stalked the shallows, and a few Common Pochards emerged from the reeds when Marsh-Harriers and Buzzards disturbed the peace of the waterside community. Miriam led me to a Sardinian Warbler that had materialized while she was photographing wagtails, pipits, and shorebirds, and we scarfed down some bits of sandwich to keep our bodies operating at full capacity.

When we finally finished up the tour and returned to El Rocío, we thanked Maria profusely for her guidance and help on our fantastic outing. After saying good-bye, Miriam and I began to talk strategy about our plans for the remainder of the day. We surveyed the shores of La Rocina one last time, and I was able to identify and check off Common Ringed Plover. Before leaving the national park for good, we decided the hit up the publicly accessible visitor center at El Acebuche. As much as we had adored every second of our Doñana adventure, settling for shadowy, first light glimpses of a bird as handsome as the Iberian Magpie seemed wrong. I had read that the species was “unmissable” at Acebuche, so we drove down to see for ourselves if we could get a better view. Sure enough, large family groups of magpies were moving around the area, but photographing them satisfactorily proved to be a challenge. Every bit as crafty and clever as any other corvid, the blue-winged birds are pretty good at steering clear of humans when they want to. A throng of screaming children, evidently visiting the park on a field trip, kept the magpies skulking in the shade at first. Following their raucous calls and tracking their movements through the branches, we caught a lucky break when they worked up the courage to begin scrounging in the open once again.

In addition to exhibiting engaging behavior and gorgeous plumage, Iberian Magpies are taxonomically fascinating. More closely related to the Gray Jay and its kin than they are to true magpies, Iberians were long considered to be the same species as the Azure-winged Magpie of eastern Asia. Genetic studies have revealed that these isolated populations have been evolving separately for up to a few million years, a remarkable case of relict distribution from a once more expansive range rather than a situation where a pretty bird was introduced half a world away as some had previously assumed. After getting our fill of crippling views and passable photos, Miriam and I took our leave of the magpies to continue south to Tarifa.

We reasoned that we’d have time for a stop or two on the drive down, and we ended up choosing the area surrounding Vejer de la Frontera. The marshes and cliffs near the town have become favorite haunts of reintroduced Northern Bald Ibis, a critically endangered species with only a few hundred surviving individuals. The experimental Spanish population is free-flying and breeding successfully in the wild, but they are not yet considered established and self-sustaining. Even so, successes for any individuals of a species so rare are a benefit to the entire population, and I’m fascinated by these kinds of intense conservation efforts. The ibis were absent from their nesting cliffs at Barca de Vejer when we arrived, so we checked out the wetlands where they feed down the coast at Barbate. Yellow-legged Gull, Common Redshank, House-Martin, and Linnet were welcome lifers all, and it was pretty cool to see Greenshanks on their home turf, but our targets were still no-shows.

Miriam suggested that we return to the roadside cliffs and watch for the ibis to return for the night. We set up camp in a nearby parking lot and stood post as the sun sank lower in the sky. Dozens of Cattle Egrets began flying in to a roost site in the reeds opposite the colony, later joined by a handful of Little Egrets. Hundreds of Jackdaws swirled overhead before settling in the trees, then the stalks above the egrets, then the trees again. We sadly saw no sign of the Bald Ibis, though we later learned that they were only just beginning to prospect the cliffs for this year’s breeding season and typically don’t roost at the nest site when they don’t have nests to tend to. Even so, we scored a pretty killer consolation prize when I looked up to see a huge Eurasian Eagle-Owl sailing along the wooded ridge above us. Even in the fading light, we enjoyed great views as the nocturnal predator headed out to hunt. It returned with a kill only a few minutes after flying out of view, floating into the trees and emerging a moment later empty-taloned. Watching a giant owl deliver prey to its unseen nest was not an expected goal for this vacation, but I didn’t know how badly I wanted it until I saw it unfolding in front of me!

At last, it was too dark to see, and the diurnal birds had all settled down for the evening. Miriam and I gathered our gear and returned to our car, wholly satisfied with the events of our sunrise-to-sunset exploration efforts. We discovered that our lodging situation in Tarifa was located right on the beachfront, next to a restaurant, with a clear view of the Strait of Gibraltar. Not a bad place to hang one’s hat for the night! Our miniature safari in Doñana turned out to be one of the clear highlights of our trip, and I was grateful for the chance to see such an incredible landscape up close and personal. Maybe we’ll find an excuse to go back someday: I’d love to see that park in a different season under different conditions! Only time will tell if and when such a wonderful opportunity will present itself again.

Year List Update, February 21 – 211 Species (+ Greater Flamingo, Iberian Magpie, Eurasian Sparrowhawk, Firecrest, Eurasian Blackcap, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Red Kite, Great Spotted Cuckoo, Black-shouldered Kite, Southern Gray Shrike, Eurasian Griffon, Thekla’s Lark, European Golden-Plover, Song Thrush, Little Egret, Glossy Ibis, Common Buzzard, Eurasian Spoonbill, Black-winged Stilt, Common Snipe, Black-tailed Godwit, Western Swamphen, Common Pochard, Sardinian Warbler, Common Ringed Plover, Yellow-legged GullCommon Redshank, Common Greenshank, Common House-Martin, Eurasian Linnet, Eurasian Eagle-Owl)

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The Lords of La Mancha

Walking along the cobblestone streets of Almagro, just as the first hints of light began to lift the shadows from the buildings, felt like a stroll through the pages of a storybook. The traditional appearance of the town is strongly evocative of Don Quixote’s legendary journey, and I felt inspired to sally forth on a quest of my own. My goals, however, were far more tangible and realistic than the those of the famous knight errant. We loaded up the car to the tune of a European Blackbird singing in the darkness before driving west to the Campo de Calatrava.

The expansive agricultural fields of La Mancha are home to a variety of birds that historically inhabited the Spanish steppes. As critical habitat across Europe continues to shrink and disappear, these open spaces provide an important refuge for a number of charismatic species. There are areas in Andalusia where some can be found in small numbers, but Campo de Calatrava offered much better odds of seeing our targets. Once we turned off the pavement onto the dirt paths that cross the region, we encountered common grassland dwellers like Crested Lark, Corn Bunting, Red-legged Partridge, and Northern Lapwing. Soon enough, we spied the first of the “steppe big five,” the Pin-tailed Sandgrouse. Two of the intricately-patterned birds were resting in a plot of dirt, and I could hear the squawking calls of a large flock further down the road.

As we slowly made our way north, a grove of olive trees came into view up ahead. Nearly a hundred truly gigantic birds were strutting around on the adjacent hillside, several of them flapping their powerful wings and taking to the air at the sight of our vehicle. These were Great Bustards, one of the heaviest living birds capable of flight. Neck and neck for the title with their cousin the Kori Bustard, male Greats usually weigh around 20-35 pounds, and the largest verified specimen clocked in at 46. These massive creatures are impressively imposing even at a distance, standing over 3 feet tall with a wingspan approaching 9 feet. Miriam was a touch uncomfortable with the huge size of these modern day dinosaurs, but I was completely thrilled to finally meet my quarry in the flesh. While I watched the burly birds going about their morning routine, a strange bubbling sound alerted me to the presence of Black-bellied Sandgrouse. A lone individual took off from the field, but I later spotted a pair heading towards a noisy congregation of Pin-tails. Several pheasant-sized Little Bustards were seen flying in behind the Greats and loitering along the periphery of the sandgrouse gang. We tracked down a single Stone Curlew hiding in the shade of an olive tree, and we also ticked Jackdaw, Calandra Lark, Greenfinch, and Spanish Sparrow before departing the fields. The day was off to a fantastic start, and I was hopeful that our lucky streak would continue at our next destination.

The primary reason Miriam and I traveled so far on our first afternoon in Spain was to visit Tablas de Daimiel National Park. We might have taken our chances seeking the bustards and sandgrouse at more southerly locations if it weren’t for a highly-desirable species that inhabits the scattered wetlands of La Mancha. Both of us had ranked the unusual Bearded Reedling near the top of our global “most wanted” lists, and we weren’t going to pass on the opportunity to make chase. Tablas also promised a wide array of other interesting possibilities, so we were eager to begin exploring the trails. Nesting White Storks greeted us at the park entrance, and we added Little Grebe, Black Redstart, and Hoopoe to our life lists before we even got out of the car. Common Cranes could be heard bugling in the distance once we opened the doors, and there were Chiffchaffs, Meadow Pipits, and a European Robin working the lawn next to our parking space. A pair of Great Tits and a Blue Tit fluttered through the trees at the start of the boardwalk that led out over the pools, where we found waterbirds like Coot and Graylag Goose.

There was a lot of activity visible in the reeds, and we took great care to inspect all of the movement that we observed among the swaying stems. Penduline-Tits gave us a start with their gray heads and dark masks, followed by Reed Buntings and a few Cetti’s Warblers clambering from stalk to stalk. All were lovely lifers, but not the birds we were looking for. Finally, Miriam paused, saying that she heard the diagnostic, pinging “pew” call of a Reedling. I listened intently and confirmed her discovery, though we were both surprised when a band of more than a dozen mustachioed songbirds popped out of the vegetation on the opposite side of the walkway. The bizarre, long-tailed fluffballs bounced over to us as if to say hello, delivering fantastic views of their acrobatic antics. The black facial ornaments and soft gray-blue heads of the males paired beautifully with their bright orange bodies and the delicate designs on their wings, making them stand out in the dull, yellowed backdrop of their grassy home. The females, though more subdued in coloration, were equally adorable and cooperative. My photos hardly do justice to these delightful beasties, which are so unique in terms of genetics, morphology, and behavior that they have been placed in their own monotypic family. After a few minutes keeping us company, the Beardies took flight and whizzed off into the distance. The encounter had lived up to our high expectations, and it was well worth the extended detour from Andalusia.

We ended up spending a sizable chunk of our day at Tablas de Daimiel, taking all of the sights and sounds that the national park had to offer. The water levels throughout the area were rather low, so we didn’t see as many ducks and other swimming species as I was expecting to. Green Sandpipers and Common Moorhens were still working the fringes of the shallows, and a carefree Water Rail foraging in the open was a nice surprise. New landbirds included Stonechat, Tree Sparrow, Chaffinch, Bluethroat, and Green Woodpecker. As the temperature began to rise, storks, cranes, and large kettle of Black Kites took advantage of the increase in thermal action. An observation blind at the Laguna Permanente was a nice spot for a stakeout, and we noted Gray Herons, Great Cormorants, and a Ruff feeding among some Lapwings.

We had another especially long drive ahead of us, so we left the park in the early afternoon. A small crew of Bearded Reedlings came out to say good bye as we were snapping our final photographs of the scenery. Miriam and I paused to get better acquainted with the iconic White Storks at close range before we turned the car southwest and began making our way towards Seville.

The trip from Daimiel to Seville was the longest stretch of on-the-road hours we experienced during the whole vacation. Even so, we made good time and arrived in the Macarena neighborhood of the city before sunset. Once we parked our car, we went for a walk along the side streets, finding Serin, Common Swift, and Lesser Kestrel before dusk. At the recommendation of our host, Miriam and I strolled across town on one of the older roads, which brought us to the spectacular Seville Cathedral. After some tasty late night tapas, we found our way back to the apartment and got into bed. Our first full day exploring Spain had been a brilliant success!

Year List Update, February 20 – 180 Species (+ European Blackbird, Red-legged Partridge, Crested Lark, Corn Bunting, Northern Lapwing, Pin-tailed Sandgrouse, Great Bustard, Black-bellied Sandgrouse, Eurasian Jackdaw, Little Bustard, Stone Curlew, Calandra Lark, Spanish Sparrow, European Goldfinch, European Greenfinch, White Stork, Little Grebe, Black Redstart, Eurasian Hoopoe, Common Crane, Common Chiffchaff, Meadow Pipit, European Robin, Great Tit, Eurasian Blue Tit, Eurasian Coot, Graylag Goose, Eurasian Penduline-Tit, Reed Bunting, Cetti’s Warbler, Bearded Reedling, European Stonechat, Eurasian Tree Sparrow, Black Kite, Green Sandpiper, Barn Swallow, Eurasian Moorhen, Water Rail, BluethroatGray Heron, Eurasian Green Woodpecker, Common Chaffinch, Black-headed Gull, Ruff, European Serin, Common Swift, Lesser Kestrel)

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¡Hola, España!

I was fortunate enough to travel extensively in the United States and Canada with my family when I was growing up, reaching all 50 states before I started college. In my undergrad years, I also made trips to St. Lucia, the Dominican Republic, and Cancun where I experienced a taste of the Neotropics. All of my adventures thus far had been confined to the Northern-Western Hemisphere. When Miriam and I began planning our February vacation back in October, however, I was presented with the opportunity to change that. After batting around several options, we settled on an expedition to southern Spain. I was excited for my first time visiting Europe, and I did a lot of homework leading up to our departure so we could make the most of our week-long holiday.

My main goal was to strike a balance between locations, activities, and birding targets that would make for a memorable experience. As usual, I reached out to others who had gone before me and picked their brains for ideas. Ben Barkley was able to provide me with a lot of great intel, and Doug Futuyma was kind enough to pass along the invaluable Where to Watch Birds in Southern and Western Spain. The Andalucía Bird Society was also a fantastic resource for learning about the most spectacular sites and recent observations of interest. After several long months of studying my new Birds of Europe field guide and trying to memorize vocalizations on the Spanish Birds Sounds app, I felt that I was finally ready.

Miriam and I departed from JFK on the evening of Sunday, February 18. Our overnight plane ride across the Atlantic inexplicably had two food servings which resulted in frustrating light and sound disturbances. Miriam bravely sacrificed her eye mask and ear plugs since I was the only driver registered to our rental car and needed to be awake and alert for the drive to our lodgings. Against the odds, I managed to get some much needed rest before we landed in Casablanca. Our layover was scheduled to last a few hours: a great opportunity to get started on the birding and add some checks for an African list! The coveted spot of First Bird of the Trip went to Lesser Black-backed Gull, which was at least a year bird. My first Old World lifer was White Wagtail, with several individuals strutting along the runway and flying around inside the terminal. A Eurasian Kestrel darted in to perch outside the window, and raptor circling in the distance was revealed as a Eurasian Marsh-Harrier when we raised our optics. It wasn’t long before we were heading out to the little propellor plane for the final leg of our flight across the Mediterranean.

When we finally landed in Málaga, we hopped aboard a shuttle to pick up our rental car. I was honestly a little apprehensive about our foreign road trip at first. The trials of traveling hundreds of miles over a full week in a different country are not to be taken lightly, and I wasn’t familiar with the brand of our diesel-powered temporary vehicle. Once our journey got underway, though, I realized my worries were misplaced. Driving in Spain is a dream compared to New York, with light traffic, observant and considerate motorists, well-marked roads and signage, and remarkably efficient roundabouts everywhere. It took nearly four hours to get to our bed in Almagro, but it was smooth sailing all the way.

The scenery along the route north was beautiful, with wooded ridges and green fields stretching out as far as the eye could see. We managed to spot a few new birds despite the difficulty of identifying totally unfamiliar species at 120 kph. Miriam and I learned quickly that the hefty and ubiquitous Wood-Pigeons can look surprisingly similar to birds of prey at a glance. Eurasian Magpies are fortunately conspicuous and distinctive, and large flocks of Red-billed Choughs were seen wheeling in the skies. Clear views confirmed that at least some of the starlings we were seeing were definitively Spotless, but most of the smaller passerines were left without names when they flitted up from the roadside as we whizzed past. The sun went down around the time we reached the border of Castilla-La Mancha, and I was pleased to see a classic windmill silhouetted on a hilltop. Almagro was a lovely little town with charming stone architecture, and we enjoyed our stay even though we only got to see it in the dark. With a full belly and a weary head, I crashed hard at the end of the night. The excitement was only just beginning, and we had an early start approaching in the morning.

Year List Update, February 19 – 133 Species (+ Lesser Black-backed Gull, White Wagtail, Eurasian Collared-Dove, Cattle Egret, Eurasian Kestrel, Eurasian Marsh-Harrier, Common Wood-Pigeon, Eurasian Magpie, Spotless StarlingRed-billed Chough)

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The Music of the Night

Nocturnal birding is an experience quite unlike typical daylight outings. Without the benefit of clear vision to locate and identify targets, it is often necessary to step outside one’s comfort zone and rely on auditory cues or brief, dimly-lit views. It can be a challenge to clinch satisfying encounters when the primary human sense is so limited. That being said, most of the species that come out after dark are truly remarkable creatures that are worth the extra effort. The distinctive vocalizations of many nightbirds are just as impressive a reward as an actual sighting of the vocalizer, some arguably more so. Fleeting glimpses in the gloom lend an air of mystery to the shadowy quarry, and every once in a while it’s possible to get lucky with a little artificial light. Combined with brilliant astronomy study prospects and the increased activity of mammals around dawn and dusk, “after hours” birding is a very appealing, entertaining option for a nature walk!

Although I’ve been keeping up with my eBird resolution of at least one checklist per day, the vast majority of my observations in the past few weeks have been brief surveys on my commute to and from work. I was looking forward to mixing things up a bit during my weekends. After regaling Miriam with this year’s Superb Owl stories, she suggested a predawn expedition to try for the birds before they headed to bed. We found ourselves in South Shore Suffolk in the wee hours of the morning, and we enjoyed a reasonable degree of success with our goals. I picked out the deep, resonant hoots of a Great Horned Owl singing in the distance when we stopped in Patchogue. Moving on to Brookhaven, close Screech-Owl encounters were a surprise treat just before sunrise. A tiny shadow stealthily flew out of the woods to perch directly above our heads, searching for the source of my intruder impression. When it returned to the forest across the road, it began a chorus of whinnying along with its unseen partner. I always appreciate the opportunity to watch these nocturnal predators going about their lives in such close proximity to our own homes. I’d love for this owl luck to hold out on my imminent trip to Spain!

Miriam and I made a few more stops in the morning on our way back to Nassau, but rain and sleepiness sent us home by midday. Conditions were similarly damp the following weekend, drizzling throughout the afternoon while we tried again for the Pileated Woodpecker frequenting the Jayne’s Hill area in Melville. We paused for a delightful and delicious happy hour at Rustic Root, buying time as we waited from the sun to set and the forecast to improve. When we emerged from the pub we found that the rain had indeed stopped. My co-pilot had a very specific target in mind for the evening, so we headed off to Stillwell Woods Park. Listening intently as we walked out the trail, I thought I heard quiet kissy sounds coming from the skies over the field ahead. I stopped, and Miriam froze with anticipation. We both strained our ears for any confirmation of my suspicions. “PEENT.”

Collective Scolopax

Mild evenings on the cusp of spring see the American Woodcock’s glorious return to the stage. The recent warm weather had us hoping to connect with the weird woodland waders, and we had apparently stumbled upon one of the first performers of the season. These cryptic forest dwellers can be exceedingly difficult to track down during most of the year: eBird currently contains no other records anywhere on Long Island for 2018 so far. When breeding season rolls around and the males start sky dancing, it’s an entirely different story. Miriam was positively giddy to be reunited with her favorite bird, and we spotted the charming soloist fluttering past us several times during his display. He eventually quieted down and retreated to the brush, leaving us alone in the darkening meadow. I wish him good fortune when rival males and interested females join him at the courtship site.

The buzzy love song of the woodcock is just one of the iconic voices of the nocturnal soundscape of spring. As winter fades, forests and wetlands are filled with the lively chorus of nightjars and the bizarre cries of rails returning from the south. Owls hoot, trill, and shriek to defend their territories, while tree frogs, foxes, and raccoons lend some non-avian talent to the mix. And high above it all, if you listen carefully, you can hear the myriad calls of countless nocturnal migrants riding the winds northwards on their journey home. After a long winter without this vibrant night music, I’ll have front row tickets when the show finally begins anew.

Year List Update, February 17 – 123 Species (+ American Woodcock, Double-crested Cormorant)

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